Dwight D. Eisenhower: Golf's Ultimate Ambassador
March 1, 2016
By Victoria Student, USGA
Dwight D. Eisenhower: five-star general, 34th president of the United States … and the ultimate ambassador for golf? That’s right. Eisenhower’s popularity was at an all-time high in the changing culture of post-war America, and with a public passion for the game, an eager nation rallied behind golf to be more like Ike.
The end of World War II – spurred by the D-Day invasion of Normandy under Eisenhower’s command – meant that the methods of mass production devoloped in wartime could provide greater financial freedom and more leisure time for the American family. Golf benefited greatly from this trend; in fact, the number of golfers approximately doubled during Eisenhower’s two terms as president (1953-1960).
Eisenhower, an enthusiastic player who typically shot in the mid-80s, carded more than 800 rounds of golf while he was commander in chief. His frequent visits to the course, paired with his undeniable political appeal, increased nationwide interest in the game. The July 1953 issue of Golf Digest reported that Washington, D.C., was “seized with golfing fever like never before in history” just six months after Ike was elected.
While in the White House, Ike would hit shots into a net in the basement, and he used the South Lawn as a practice range. In 1954, with assistance from the USGA, Eisenhower had a 3,000-square-foot putting green constructed just outside the Oval Office to help satisfy his itch when he couldn’t make it to the course. As if a personal putting green wasn’t enough, it’s said that Eisenhower would take practice swings next to his desk, with a club in his hands, while dictating letters to his secretary.
Not only did Eisenhower bring golf to the White House, he brought the White House to the golf course. He often played with celebrities, golf professionals and high-ranking politicians, such as Bob Hope, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Sen. Robert Taft, and Gen. Omar Bradley. To create a relaxed atmosphere and increase cooperation, Eisenhower would use the golf course as a place to build relationships with representatives from both political parties. Ike even wrote his 1953 State of the Union Address in the clubhouse at Augusta National, where he was a longtime member.
The charismatic Arnold Palmer, whose dramatic “charges” up the leader board were watched by millions on the newly available technology of television, was a close friend of the president. In 1966, Palmer’s wife, Winnie, orchestrated a surprise for Arnie’s 37th birthday, sending Palmer’s private plane to fly the president to Latrobe, Pa. Palmer was shocked to find Eisenhower on his front porch clutching an overnight bag. “Say, you wouldn’t have room to put up an old man for the night, would you?” asked Ike. Palmer later reminisced that “one of the nicest weekends of my life followed.”
Eisenhower believed that golf epitomized an era of growing families and a burgeoning American culture. In 1953 he wrote: “It is a sport in which the whole family can participate … It offers healthy respite from daily toil, refreshment of body and mind.”
He also saw the game as a way to foster goodwill and understanding among an international community. The trophy of the World Amateur Team Championship, which was founded in 1958, is aptly named after Eisenhower, who said in a White House address to championship representatives, “I visualize it as a potent force for establishing friendship between yet another segment of the populations of nations.”
Even after a military and political career of extraordinary accomplishments, Ike considered his first and only hole-in-one, at the age of 77, “the thrill of a lifetime.”
Victoria Student is the USGA Museum’s junior historian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.